The Low Road

Issue section: 

When Dominic Cooke took over as artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre in 2006 he announced his intention to produce plays which "explore what it means to be middle class...and what it means to have wealth".

That has indeed been a feature of his reign, but it has also been marked by radical work such as Lucy Prebble's Enron and Caryl Churchill's 7 Jewish Children.

Cooke's final play for the theatre, The Low Road, written by Bruce Norris, continues in this politically charged vein. It is a funny, colourful and clever play about capitalism, set during the American Revolution but unashamed in its attempts to draw links with the current financial crisis.

Johnny Flynn plays Jim Trumpet, a young boy raised in a Massachusetts brothel after having been abandoned as a baby. The most important moment in his life comes as a child, when he stumbles across a manuscript written by one of the brothel's lodgers, Adam Smith. Trumpet discovers Smith's famous description of an "invisible hand"" - the idea that when an individual pursues his own self-interest, he indirectly promotes the good of society - and adopts it as his mantra. He sets out on a pursuit to make as much money as possible, first by cheating the women of the brothel, and then leaving home to track down his fatherr - who he believes to be George Washington - and claim his inheritance. Adam Smith, played brilliantly by Bill Paterson, becomes our narrator and guides us through the three-hour adventure that follows.

Norris has taken risks with his script, including one scene which jumps into a modern day business conference. It is reminiscent of the recent Royal Court production, If You Don't Let Us Dream, We Won't Let You Sleep, with characters extolling the virtues of the free market while Occupy-style protesters arrive to disrupt proceedings. But whereas the previous play felt sanctimonious and verging on propaganda, Norris has woven together a script which avoids these pitfalls and has the audience in fits of laughter.

The best scenes are also the most political. In one highlight, Jim and an educated slave he has bought are invited in for dinner by a religious order. As their hosts explain why they shun material possessions and provide care for the needy, Jim becomes increasingly irate at their stupidity and launches into a frenzied attack on their way of life that brutally reveals his own individualist ideology. Flynn plays Trumpet with incredible bile and passion, and while he is never likeable, he is always compelling.

The Low Road is certainly not a perfect production. It is long, and some twists make you unsure exactly what kind of play you're watching. Its politics are not subtle, but neither are they preachy. Norris is clearly reluctant to point to political conclusions, which might explain the slightly bizarre finale. The play doesn't offer any answers about a way out from the system it lampoons, but it does provide plenty of fun and a fantastic piece of theatre.

The Low Road is directed by Dominic Cooke and is at the Royal Court until 11 May